(Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said Friday that smartphones -- like the iPhone the FBI is trying to force Apple Inc. to help it hack -- can’t be allowed to be "black boxes," inaccessible to the government. The technology industry, he said, should work with the government instead of leaving the issue to Congress.
"You cannot take an absolutist view on this," Obama said at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. "If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value."
Obama’s appearance on Friday at the event known as SXSW, the first by a sitting president, comes as the FBI tries to force Apple Inc. to help investigators access an iPhone used by one of the assailants in December’s deadly San Bernardino, California, terror attack. Apple has appealed a magistrate court order that it assist the government, saying to do so would undermine its encryption technology.
Rapid technological advancements "offer us enormous opportunities, but also are very disruptive and unsettling," Obama said at the festival, where he hoped to persuade tech workers to enter public service. "They empower individuals to do things that they could have never dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages."
Siding with Apple are technology companies including Amazon Inc., Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc. and Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. On Thursday, the government filed a memorandum in the case arguing that Apple would need to assign as few as six workers for as little as two weeks to hack into Syed Farook’s phone.
“This burden, which is not unreasonable, is the direct result of Apple’s deliberate marketing decision to engineer its products so that the government cannot search them, even with a warrant,” government attorneys said in the filing.
‘Sloppy and Rushed’
Obama was interviewed at the festival by the CEO and editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, Evan Smith, who told him that "it looks to the tech community, or to some in the tech community, that government is the enemy" in its dealings with Apple. South by Southwest, now 30 years old, has grown from an event to highlight local musicians and artists into one of the nation’s largest and most popular technology conferences and film-and-music festivals.
The White House has backed the FBI in its fight with Apple, but has said Obama believes it it is vital to balance privacy protections against the needs of law enforcement. Obama has not weighed in on legislation being drafted by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and the senior Democrat on the panel, Dianne Feinstein of California, which would require companies to comply with court orders asking for assistance accessing encrypted data.
He indicated on Friday that he believes leaving the matter to lawmakers may not be ideal. The result would be "sloppy and rushed and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through," he said.
Apple and other tech firms have said that building backdoors into their encrypted products could put them at a disadvantage to foreign competitors. They have also warned that China or other countries could demand similar cooperation with government investigations.
Without commenting on the Apple case, Obama dismissed those arguments, saying that for centuries law enforcement agencies have been able to search private property for evidence of crimes using a warrant.
"The question we now have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?" Obama said. "If in fact you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."
Compromise is possible, he said, and the technology industry must help design it.
"I suspect the answer is going to come down to, how do we create a system that, encryption is as strong as possible, the key is secure as possible, and it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for the subset of issues that we agree is important," he said.
It isn’t the first time his policies have caused the White House a headache at the Austin festival. In 2014, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden gave a virtual keynote speech from Russia on privacy rights. WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange also spoke remotely to the conference that year.
Snowden’s leaks have complicated the encryption issue, Obama said, by "elevating people’s suspicions" of government surveillance.
Still, White House officials believe that engagement with the technology sector is critical, especially if the administration is to recruit talented programmers to help modernize the federal government.
“Cooperation that exists between the government and the tech sector continues beyond the issue of encryption,” Jason Goldman, the White House’s chief digital officer, said on a conference call with reporters before Obama’s appearance.
In recent years, Obama has hired officials from companies including Microsoft, Alphabet, and Twitter Inc. to help repair the broken HealthCare.gov enrollment system and the byzantine Veterans Affairs claims processing system, among other assignments. The administration hopes the president’s appearance at SXSW can help replenish the ranks of hundreds of technology specialists who put their Silicon Valley careers on hold for public service.
Obama called HealthCare.gov "an example of the big and the bloated and frustrating" in government. When the website failed in October 2013, he said, it "was a little embarrassing for me because I was the cool early adopter president. My entire campaign had been premised on having really cool technology and social media and all that."
After fixing HealthCare.gov with the assistance of private-sector technology experts, "what we realized was we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world class tech office inside of the government, that was helping across agencies," Obama said. That became the U.S. Digital Service.
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